Rabbi Eliezer Ben Hyrcanus, a famous sage of the Talmud, grew up as a farmer like his father and his brothers. One day Eliezer was out in the field plowing, and he began to weep. His father asked him what was wrong. Eliezer replied that he no longer wanted to work the land and instead he wanted to study Torah.
Eliezer’s father said to him: “But you are already 22 (which was middle-aged at that time). The father continued: “Take a wife. She will bear children for you and you will take them to school.” Eliezer kept insisting on studying Torah, so that his father finally said: “You will not get a taste of food until you have plowed the entire furrow.” So Eliezer plowed the furrow. The next morning Eliezer left home. He set out to study in Jerusalem, leaving behind his home and his family.
Eliezer who was 22, rebelled against his father and took action to pursue what he wanted. Today, it is often teenagers who rebel against authority, especially their parents. A teen may dye their hair blue, or get a piercing or just stop talking to their parents. What is the most common response from a teenager to the parental question: “What did you do today?” “Nothing.” Are there times when it is necessary to rebel against parents or other authority figures? And when you push back against The Man, how should you do so?
In the Bible, the Israelites rebelled against God when Moses was up on the mountain. Moses was gone, they were alone and scared, and so they fashioned a golden calf and bowed down to this idol. In a sense, the Israelites were rebelling against their parent, God, who they felt had abandoned them. They were acting like immature children, unable to hold it together when Moses was up on the mountain.
The Golden Calf episode reminds us that when young people rebel in dangerous or unhealthy ways, it can be harmful to themselves and to their families. When God saw the Golden calf, God punished the Israelites by making Moses grind up the calf into powder, add it to water, and God made the Israelites drink it. Some teens believe it is cool to smoke or take drugs as a way to rebel against their parents, the cops and the establishment.
However, when teens drink or take drugs, they are putting things into their bodies that are much worse than golden powder in water. These types of risky behavior harm your body and they create the possibility of serious consequences. Breaking the law is not rebellion, it is just plain not smart.
However, Judaism teaches us that there are situations when it is necessary for young people to rebel against authority. Sometimes children challenge their parents because they are just trying to be themselves. In the movie Billy Elliot, Billy is a young boy who lost his mother and his father and brother work in the local coalmine. Billy’s father wants him to take boxing lessons. As it turns out, in the same gym, there was a ballet class with young girls. Billy soon discovers that there is something about ballet that he really likes.
For months Billy takes ballet lessons until his father finally figures out his secret. It takes the father a little while to get used to the idea of his son as a ballet dancer. But when the father sees how much Billy loves to dance, he embraces his son. In the last scene in the movie, Billy is a grown man, backstage at beautiful theatre in London. His dad is in the audience. The music rises, and Billy makes his entrance. He leaps into the air, to the center of the stage, like a magnificent bird taking flight.
A young miner’s boy who became a ballet dancer reminds us that sometimes you must rebel in order to become who you truly are. You must set aside societal convention in order to find yourself and what gives you meaning and fulfillment in life. To pursue your dreams at any age, no matter what you parents, or friends or society says is perhaps the highest form of rebellion.
That brings us back to Rabbi Eleizer. After Eliezer left his father and brothers, he studied Torah in Jerusalem for three years and became a great scholar. One day, Eleizer’s brothers said to their father: “See what Eliezer did to you, leaving you in your old age.” So Eliezer’s father went to Jerusalem to disinherit his son.
The father arrived at the academy and he was seated in a place of honor, with other notables from the city. Then Eliezer rose to spoke. He gave a sermon so profound that no ear had ever heard before. Rabbi Eliezer’s face was as radiant as the light of the sun. When Rabbi Eliezer finished, the head of the academy came and kissed him on the head. Then Eliezer’s father got up on a bench and said: “I am happy that such a son has come from me.”
Part of being a teenager means rebelling to seek your own path in life and your independence. The trick is to not to rebel for petty or selfish reasons or to rebel in dangerous ways, but to stand up for your principles and for yourselves. For parents, your task is to listen. It is possible that your teenager is not simply being petulant or difficult or making a bad decision, but rather he or she is coming from a place of truth. When we can embrace this type of rebellion and give our children the independence that they merit, then our relationships can only be strengthened.